No agreement on handling equipment scandal

File/Staff Augusta equipment and personnel turned up in this remote Lincoln County area in March.

No arrests have been made, but a recent Augusta equipment scandal is keeping county officials busy trying to prevent a recurrence.

 

Augusta commissioners have not agreed on any measures to prevent incidents such as the March misuse of government equipment and landfill personnel at a private Lincoln County site, although most agree the incident was a problem.

Commissioner Sean Frantom proposal to require employees to sign a statement acknowledging they know they’re prohibited from taking government property for private use, and that criminal prosecution is a possibility, was panned last week by several colleagues as punishing good employees for the bad acts of a few and duplicating what’s already in the city personnel manual and part of employee training.

The statement had support from City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson, who facilitated its drafting and also is reportedly near completion of an internal investigation but hasn’t released any findings. The statement goes into the commission committee cycle amid a heavy slate of third-quarter spending requests and other items Tuesday.

Alongside it is a new approach from Commissioner Ben Hasan, who is calling for a comprehensive audit of all financial, equipment and contractual matters within the Environmental Services department, which has a combined budget of about $40 million.

Other than the public’s trust, Environmental Services suffered the incident’s only casualty. Director Mark Johnson, who told sheriff’s investigators he authorized the Lincoln County trip, resigned after Jackson placed him on leave pending the outcome of her investigation.

Commissioners earlier rejected an approach sought by Commissioner Marion Williams to bring in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation due to involvement by a Richmond County sheriff’s deputy. Deputy Rusty Eskew oversaw the equipment and loaned it to the landfill, but commissioners, saying grand jury findings were imminent, gave Williams’ motion no second.

The sheriff’s office, which has adopted most Augusta personnel policies but has its own, extensive policy manual, is unlikely to adopt Frantom’s recommendation because it already has a policy against misuse of equipment, Internal Affairs Lt. Allan Rollins said.

Neighboring county officials said the equipment use issue is generally a no-brainer. Aiken County Administrator Clay Killian said public works employees there are closely trained on where equipment is allowed to be used, in addition to how to use it. The system has kept Aiken’s nearly 400 pieces of heavy equipment accounted for across the 1,100-square-mile county, he said.

Columbia County has a process dating at least to 2009 that places a paper trail behind the standard answer it has for using county equipment, people or resources on private property, which is “no,” according to Administrator Scott Johnson.

Requests occasionally come up, Johnson said, but must go through the division director, the administrator and the Columbia County Commission, but the answer is “always no,” Johnson said.

“If you asked any of our employees, they know we don’t do work on private property,” he said.

Augusta Mayor Pro Tem Mary Davis said the commission needs to adopt a strict policy agreed upon by the commission, administrator, city lawyers and Mayor Hardie Davis to “ensure this situation doesn’t happen again,” or “at the very least, gives us a clear policy that determines what consequences this will have on an employee who violates policy.”

The grand jury declined to indict anyone last month after District Attorney Natalie Paine presented findings and witnesses from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office investigation to the jury. The sheriff’s office investigation had already found no criminal charges.

Commissioners have been critical of the grand jury presentment, which dwelled on details such as whether the equipment, an asset seized by the sheriff’s office, deteriorated while in Lincoln County, and claimed the government workers hadn’t actually used it there, due to weather.

The grand jury also claimed that the landfill worker had submitted an out-of-county travel form prior to the trip. A blank copy of the form obtained by The Augusta Chronicle requires extensive detail about out-of-county travel, including date of departure, date of return, destination and purpose of the trip.

“I don’t think Risk Management approved that,” Commissioner Ben Hasan said.

One area lawmaker, Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, told The Chronicle he plans to ask Paine how to address state law loopholes that seemingly render prosecutions impossible with facts as those in the Augusta incident.

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Reach Susan McCord at (706) 823-3215 or susan.mccord@augustachronicle.com.

 

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